Wednesday, 8 July 2015

Protecting Welsh Place-Names: Discursive, Ethical and Regulatory Norms

National Assembly committees rarely get to consider questions of philosophical or theoretical interest while scrutinizing legislation, but the Communities, Equality and Local Government Committee had such an opportunity on Thursday last week.  

They were taking evidence on the Historic Environment (Wales) Bill currently going through the National Assembly under the sponsorship of Deputy Minister, Ken Skates. I am not particularly well acquainted with the finer details of the bill, but as far as I am aware it seeks to strengthen and reform the protection regime for historic buildings and monuments in Wales, and by all accounts it has broad support from the heritage sector and other interested parties: ‘fine insofar as it goes’ was the conclusion of the first witness, Dr Charles Mynors, a barrister specialising in the field.

But it was the second session which was of much greater interest to this saloon-bar philosopher as Dr Rhian Parry of Cymdeithas Enwau Lleoedd Cymru (the Welsh Place-Name Society) pressed the case for Welsh place-names (of farms, cottages, fields, landmarks, etc.) to be included within the provisions of the Bill and thereby gain the same protection as standing stones, medieval field systems or Victorian pitheads.

She carefully articulated the argument that place-names provide unique insights into our human and natural history, insights that are often not available in the archaeology or in manuscripts. She drew the committee’s attention to their intrinsic beauty, their ‘naturally’ derived communal and collective meaning, and their linguistic variety, citing examples of ancient Welsh, English, Scandinavian and Norman-French names. She also reminded the committee that place-names currently enjoy no protection in law and are under continued attack as an increasing number of new owners choose to give their properties new names.

Questioned by Alun Davies on the scale of the problem, she reeled off a litany of recent changes to farms and cottages in Ceredigion and Carmarthenshire:  ‘Happy Donkey Hill’ for ‘Faerdre’, ‘Stallion Valley’ for ‘Cwm March’ and ‘Emerald Valley’ for ‘Cefn Bryn Sarth’. She had hundreds of examples if the committee wanted them.

Committee members were largely sympathetic towards Dr Parry’s argument, perhaps unsurprisingly, as it would take a particularly insensitive kind of philistine not to be moved by the loss of a thousand year-old name referring to the demesne holding of the local lord’s ‘maer biswail’, or ‘dung bailiff’ (Faerdre < Maerdref) and its replacement by a name referring to a bunch of Shrek-like, grinning, asses.

But what to do about it in law they questioned? To what extent can the state intervene to protect not only the ‘physical’ artefacts of our history but also the ‘intangible’, cultural artefacts too? To what extent can the state intervene over the names of ‘public’ spaces such as housing developments, streets and shopping centres, but also over the name of an individual’s home or business?

“What right do we have?”, “How should we legislate?” beseeched member after member, rather forlornly, as they struggled with the age-old dilemma of whether to retreat into a deterministic view of society where the material world inevitably changes over time and the state has no place intervening, or taking an idealised notion of society where social, religious, linguistic or cultural constructs are ‘real’, can have intrinsic value, and the state can have a legitimate duty to preserve or protect them. But even if members had rejected a wholly deterministic view of the world (as most politicians do), should they privilege one cultural construct (the value of a living language for example) over another (the idea of ‘liberty’)?

I sympathised with our legislators as they tried to tackle these perennial questions as it is inevitable that as one ventures beyond the bounds of an empirically determined world-view and crosses into an idealised one, it becomes increasingly difficult  to ‘calculate’ an objectively ‘true’ answer every time. ‘In for an idealized penny, in for an idealized pound’, so to speak. Once you accept that the antiquity of an earthen mound is in itself sufficient grounds for the state to curtail the liberty of a farmer to bulldoze it, you have to at least recognize the intellectual argument that the antiquity of a name is equally deserving of protection. All is relative, all is cultural, in the difficult world of ideas.

But I would offer them one crumb of comfort if they cannot reconcile the apparent ‘weight’ of such entrenched ideas as ‘liberty’ with the apparent ‘lightness’ of others such as the protection of a Welsh place-name. The discursive framework within which they think and speak, and which regulates the importance of one category over another and which gives the ‘heavy/light’ differentiation above its apparent ‘authority’, is in itself a cultural construct. It happens to be the Brito-Welsh, English-language, liberal-utilitarian, largely secular political discourse of the Westminster tradition, but it is very definitely cultural (that is specific to a time and place) and a construct (achieving coherence only in the minds of the men and women who share it and is not prior to, or external to, the individual).  

Our instinctive nervousness about curtailing the liberty of a small group of people in the interests of an ‘intangible’ language is not, therefore, a nervousness about contravening some sacred universal right (‘everyone should be able to call their house anything they like, at any time, in any place’ – a right which can be disproved very quickly), it is a nervousness about contravening a long-established Brito-Welsh discursive norm (‘the Welsh language is not normally important enough to curtail the liberty of an individual in Wales – you better have a bloody good reason’).

In a different cultural context and under different discursive rules, it may be perfectly acceptable to say that a language is important enough to curtail the liberty of an individual of course. In Catalonia perhaps? In the Basque Country? In a school classroom in Bradford? In the Palace of Westminster maybe, where even now members are prohibited from speaking any other language except English and Norman French? The ‘you better have a bloody good reason’ Brito-Welsh norm is not intrinsically ‘right’ therefore, it is just the currently ‘authorised’ norm.

But of course, our Brito-Welsh discourse authorises the state to intervene in the affairs of an individual across a whole range of other matters from what we build on our properties and how we build it, how we look after our animals, how we manage our money, whether we choose to keep firearms or explosives or chemicals in our homes, what we can say on blogs about other people, what we can ‘think’ in relation to certain emerging theocracies in the Middle East, even when we can take our own lives or not. It is not a question of whether the state curtails liberty or not, it is a question of in whose or in what’s interest it is done. It is currently acceptable to curtail an individual’s liberty to protect a rare Welsh flower, for example, but not a rare Welsh place-name.

If our Assembly Members are at least tempted to explore some sort of protection regime they can take some comfort from the fact that the state usually curtails liberty in a proportionate and moderate way, with checks and balances to ensure that the ‘good’ which is being achieved is not at the expense of patent (or widespread) injustice or cruelty. And in any case, we normally internalise and normalize a curtailment of our freedoms very quickly and become largely complicit in our own ‘enslavement’ as Gramsci would argue. Indeed, a shift in the discursive norm is not actually that unusual (remember the golden years before seatbelt laws?), and what was yesterday’s freedom can very quickly become today’s social faux pas.

To that extent, if the members of the Communities, Equality and Local Government Committee are currently troubled by the prospect of introducing legislation that prohibits an individual changing the ancient Welsh name of their farm, cottage or field without consent, they might profit from considering the following simple questions:

Why preserve anything at all? Why not let the material world follow its deterministic path subject only to the natural law?

If we are to preserve things, why is a 1960s bus terminal in Merthyr worthy of more protection than an ancient Welsh place-name in Ceredigion?

If we are to protect place-names, why would a protection regime be any less proportionate, transparent and fair than a protection regime for buildings, wild flowers or endangered animals?

If we were to have a protection regime, why would Welsh citizens be less accepting of its rationale and provisions after the usual period of normalization?

If members still struggle after considering these questions, but are still keen to understand why they can’t take the final step, then I’m afraid they’ll have to look deeper into their own discursive make-up and think about which locus of authority constituted their political values and in whose interest. Most importantly of all, they need to ask if that authority is still relevant in a 21st-century Wales capable of authorising its own discursive, ethical and regulatory norms.